The Cleveland Indians signing of Edwin Encarnacion was unprecedented for the defending American League champions. A year after making a run to the World Series, the penny-pinching Indians saw a surprising deal in Encarnacion, who just turned 34 in January. His three-year, $60 million deal was the largest given out in club history, even if it was nowhere near what Edwin wanted heading into free agency.
As you may expect, the Indians have not had many truly great hitters as old as Encarnacion. Even without getting into big free agents, the Indians’ need to work within a small-market budget means they have also not kept their biggest stars into their mid- to -late-30s, either. Regardless of where over-30 players come from — whether they are home-grown or signed on the free agent market — it’s a big gamble for a team like the Indians to take. They took that gamble with Encarnacion, but they have not done it much in the past.
Last year, Encarnacion’s age-33 season, the then Toronto Blue Jays slugger slashed an incredible .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs. He played in all but two games over the season, and he was remarkably consistent through it all. After a slow start in March/April, his wRC+ never dipped below 117 in any given month. Throughout his best month of the season, June, he tore apart opposing pitchers to the tune of a .308/.448/.736 slash and 11 home runs. I mean, it’s no May 2015 Jason Kipnis, but it’s still a pretty good month.
The Indians have only had a handful of players 33 or older with seasons quite like the one Edwin put up in 2016. Since 1901, Tribe batters have matched or outpaced Edwin’s 133 OPS+ just 20 times. Four of those were Nap LaJoie (1908, 1909, 1910, 1912), five were Tris Speaker (1921-1925), and the two latest came courtesy of Ellis Burks in 2001 and 2002 when he was 36 and 37 years old, respectively.
The full list, while small, is full of players familiar to fans of Indians history:
Indians batters 33 or older with an OPS+ of 133 or higher
I mentioned Ellis Burks being the most recent — he, along with Roberto Alomar in 2001, were the only ones to do it in the last 30 years. Prior to those two, you have to go all the way back to Toby Harrah in 1982, when the veteran turned in his finest season in an Indians uniform late in his tenure.
All those great Indians teams of the 90s were anchored by players under 33 having big performances. Thome was gone in 2003, which was his own age-33 season. He did end up crushing the ball in his first year for the Philadelphia Phillies, but that only proves the point more — few batters have done it while on the Indians. Manny Ramirez? Gone to start his career with the Boston Red Sox in 2002, when he was 29 years old. Kenny Lofton was on the Indians (the second time) well into his 30s, but he passed the 133 OPS+ threshold just once in his career, anyway.
The fact of the matter is, players hitting so well into their mid- to late-30s is not a common feat, on the Indians or not. Expanding the handy dandy Play Index to all teams since 1901, just 190 players had a season like Encarnacion’s at 33 or older. That total drops to 138 for players 34 or older, and 95 for players 35 or older. I don’t expect Encarnacion to mimic his 133 OPS+ season next year, and neither do early projection systems, but he does have consistency on his side. He has flat out been one of the best hitters in the entire league over the last four seasons, with the fourth-most home runs (151), the fourth-highest slugging percentage (.541), and the 25th-higher on-base percentage (.363).
This signing could be completely new territory for the Indians. Sure, everything could go south and the lack of 33-or-over prodigious hitters could continue. But if it doesn’t, the Indians could be looking at something special. Something they haven’t seen in over a decade at this point. Could it lead to something they haven’t seen in almost 70 years?